Homer in ninth erases blown save, pushes Nats past Braves
By Bill Ladson / MLB.com

WASHINGTON — The Nationals had it all on Sunday night, as they christened new Nationals Park. They had a sell out crowd, President George W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and the Nats topped it off with a thrilling 3-2 victory over the Braves.

Leave it to the franchise player, Ryan Zimmerman, to send the crowd home happy. In the bottom of the ninth inning, he hit Peter Moylan’s 1-0 pitch over the left-center-field wall for the victory. It was the fourth walk-off home run of Zimmerman’s career.

“I’ve been lucky to be in this situation,” Zimmerman said. “That’s half of the battle right there. You can’t do it if you are not in that situation. It’s a mind-set — you have to stay calm. I haven’t done it every time, but I want to be up there.”

For manager Manny Acta, the home run capped off one of the greatest days of his baseball life. It started by catching President Bush’s ceremonial first pitch, and it ended with the Zimmerman home run.

“I was a very exciting day — we got a win with the right guy up, the franchise player,” Acta said. “He came through in our first game in our new stadium.”

The score was tied at 2 when Zimmerman came to the plate with two outs. All he wanted to do was extend the inning with a single and let teammate Nick Johnson do the damage. It turned out that Zimmerman did more than hit a single.

Zimmerman knew he hit the ball well, but he wasn’t sure if it was high enough for a home run.

“I was talking to it and trying to coax it over the fence,” Zimmerman said.

The ball just cleared the fence for Zimmerman’s first home run of the season. Nationals president Stan Kasten was in the tunnel outside of the media room when heard a loud noise. He was wondering what was going on, then was informed what his franchise player had done.

It was the third walk-off home run in the first regular season game at a new park. The others were hit by the Braves’ Bill Bruton at Milwaukee County Stadium in 1953 and the Rockies’ Dante Bichette at Coors Field in 1995.

“He is such a great young star, but he is good a person off the field,” Kasten said of Zimmerman.

Nationals catcher Paul Lo Duca went even further. He put Zimmerman in the same class as Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan because Zimmerman knows how to get the job done in clutch situations.

“Zim seems to be the guy when the spotlight is on him,” Lo Duca said. “Something good happens. You can’t teach that. Not only is he a good athlete, he’s a good player. He plays the game the right way. That’s something you can’t explain.

“Some guys have it — Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan. The elite athletes have a way of coming through when you need it the most. Zim is definitely one of those guys. Remember, this is only his fourth year in the big leagues, and he is just going to get better.”

Asked what it meant to have the franchise player win the first game at Nationals Park, Zimmerman said, “I really don’t think of myself that way. I just enjoy playing here. I enjoy the guys. I’m honored to be part of this organization. I want to be here for a long time.”

Like last season, the Nationals’ offense was virtually non-existent for the first seven innings against Braves right-hander Tim Hudson, who has given the Nats fits since he joined the National League in 2005. Sunday was no different, as the Nats collected just three hits against him.

The difference was that Johnson was back on the scene in his first Major League game since Sept. 23, 2006, when he broke his right leg in a collision with outfielder Austin Kearns.

Johnson made his presence felt right away. In the first inning, with Cristian Guzman on third, Johnson blooped a double over the head of Braves first baseman Mark Teixeira, scoring Guzman. Kearns followed with a single to score Johnson.

“It was great — it was pretty cool,” Johnson said. “There was a lot of fun out there — great time.”

Reliever Jon Rauch, who picked up the win, came in for the ninth inning in a save opportunity, but he couldn’t close it out, as Martin Prado — who entered the game as a pinch-runner after Teixeira’s double with one out — scored on a passed ball by Lo Duca with two outs.

The tying run spoiled a nice outing from Nationals starter Odalis Perez, who said he had a huge responsibility by being the Opening Night starter. Perez showed that he took it seriously, limiting the Braves to one run over five innings. His only blemish was allowing a solo home run by Chipper Jones in the top of the fourth inning.

But Zimmerman made a lot of fans forget about the Nationals’ blemishes with a home run to remember.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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